28 hours and 10 minutes. That is how long flying from Montreal to Seoul would require. More than a day of travelling, three planes and two layovers: definitely not a trip for the faint of heart, or someone suffering from severe motion sickness. You could luck out and get a faster flight of 18 hours and only one layover. Either way, hopefully you have better luck in scoring a ticket in business class, where you can spend most of the trip supine and not upright in the economy section of the plane. You would have to be terribly homesick to want to subject yourself to the latter, and pay anything more than $2000 for the privilege.
Yet, there is nothing like submerging yourself in Seoul once you arrive. The mad bustling crowd that is inescapable. It really doesn’t matter where you go: you will be surrounded by crowds. Then there’s the food. There’s something about enjoying Korean streetfood, or going to a coffee shop where they serve delicate baked goods that look almost too pretty to eat. There’s the culture that includes K-pop, Gangnam-mania, soccer-mania, Sassy Girl, as well as a rich history a few thousand years old. How could you not miss that? Oh yes, and the unbearable humidity in the summer.
Growing up in Montreal, there was a time when staples of Korean food like rice could not be found in the mainstream grocery stores like Maxi or Metro. The hot Korean chili powder, salted dried seaweed (kim), and even Korean ramen required a special trip downtown to the sole Korean grocery store on the island.
And it was expensive. Korean ramen can now be found for $1.00 or $2.00 if you want to go upscale with a fancier kind. But in those days (yes, those old days) given the limited supply of the ingredients, the distance traveled and the niche market most ingredients were sold at a premium food. And there is no replacement in mainstream grocery stores for hot pepper paste. So you savoured that gojujang, each bite meant to maintain your ties with the old country, your culture, your roots.
Nowadays, grocery stores like Loblaws have dedicated space for “Asian” food. It’s so convenient to be able to go and pick up a bag of Honey Twist or the Shrimp Chips alongside your gallon of milk, loaf of bread and dozen of eggs. There are even Asian supermarkets specializing in this broad area of cuisine, including Korean. Hello T&T! And thank you for all the commercialized kimchi so that I don’t have to pickle and ferment my own.
Montreal did not have a Koreatown like LA or Toronto. For a child, Toronto’s Koreatown was as close to motherland as one could get, and yet still very far away (a 5 hour drive at least). Koreatown held promises of a wider array of Korean ingredients, but also other items and services. Even to this day, you can go to Koreatown and find the latest Korean magazines and movies that your Korean grocery may not have, or get your hair done in the latest trend that is fashionable in Korea. It’s a bit jarring walking down the streets in Toronto and suddenly noticed brightly colored business signs written in Hangul suddenly appearing. North York Toronto even has a Korean grocery store, Galleria, where you can find almost everything your Korean heart desires: from hair bubbles to kim chi fridges, to everything to stock up for both your kim chi fridge and regular one too. And there’s even a Bungeoppang vendor whose delicious smelling and tasting waffle-like cookies evoke a bit of home.
So where does this highly nostalgic post come from? This Sunday at 9 pm EST on CNN, chef and author Anthony Bourdain is visiting LA’s Koreatown on his show “Parts Unknown”. I think it’ll be worth watching. Anthony Bourdain’s been to Seoul so it’ll be interesting to see if he picks up on the similarities between Seoul and Koreatown, and also on what makes them uniquely North American creations. In my view, Koreatowns offer the best of both worlds: the opportunity to keep in touch with my Koreanness and at the same time, the chance to share with my non-Korean friends all that Korean culture and food has to offer, including K-pop, Gangnam mania, Red Dragon/soccer mania, and all of the entertaining Korean TV dramas and movies along the ilks of Sassy Girl and such. So I’m looking forward to watching Anthony Bourdain’s show on Sunday. I’m hoping that he’ll showcase and share with his viewers all of these wonderful things.